“We are pioneers and trailblazers. We fight for freedom. We transform our dreams into the truth. Our struggles will become a nation.”
I was really looking forward to this release. From the moment I was made aware that it was going to be arriving here for review, I made a mental note to put it at the top of my viewing list. Fact is, I’m a history junkie, particularly American history. I taught the subject in AP and honors classes along with American Government and Law for over seven years. The History Channel is also one of my favorite places on the dial. There are many thought-provoking and informative shows to be found there to help you explore almost every aspect of history. I truly expected this to be one of those milestone releases. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
My first problem is the fact that the series plays pretty loosely with the truth. There are more than a few downright misrepresentations of the facts. So much so, that I would insist that students in my class should absolutely not watch the series for fear that it might pollute their American History education. The second problem deals with the events that they have chosen to spend time on here. How can you spend ten minutes talking about Lincoln growing up in a rural log cabin, his mother’s death, and his first foray on a pole raft, and completely ignore his assassination? The series relegates his pre-presidential career as being most notable for two failed Senate runs. There’s no mention of the classic debates that have become the cornerstone of today’s presidential politics. My third problem involves the team of commentators they chose for the series. While there is an occasional historic scholar, there is far more time devoted to the likes of Michael Douglas, Sheryl Crow, Meryl Streep, and P. Diddy. These are history experts? Come on! To be fair, there are insightful participants. Listening to Mayor Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani talk about the history of New York was quite insightful. Buzz Aldrin’s comments on the exploration of space are absolutely wonderful. I even accept the use of news commentators who have spent careers putting history into some perspective, often as it was happening. What makes P. Diddy a history expert? Why are his observations of any value in a series, purportedly dedicated to giving us a sweeping historical lesson? Finally, I was rather disappointed in the computer generated re-enactments of certain historical events. Most of the CG is low-budget stuff that is overtly obvious. They also recycled this stuff entirely too much, often using the same footage to represent an entirely different event or concept. I would have rather they spent less money hiring celebrities to talk out of their rear-ends and spent some of that money on better footage.
You should be warned that there is graphic footage of both the Challenger disaster and the 9/11 attacks. I’m not talking about aftermath footage. There is that, but both incidents are depicted several times with footage of the event happening. You will see a plane collide with the tower, and not just once. I say this not as a criticism of the use of these pieces of video. They are entirely appropriate to the task of the series. I mention it merely because some folks are very sensitive to these images and deserve to be warned.
I understand there are certain inherent problems when you try to present 250 years of American history in 12 hours. Choices have to be made, and some stuff isn’t going to be covered. But they spend 20 minutes on millworkers and looms and don’t even mention the invention of the aircraft until the final hours, then as a by-the-way. Meanwhile, we see Henry Ford and his production line in no less than 6 of the episodes. It seems as though a limited amount of footage was produced, and the writers were forced to shape the narrative around using this footage as often as they possible could. By the last 2 hours there is less than 15 minutes of new material for each of the 46 minutes of running time. When you watch week to week, perhaps it’s not as obvious. I watched all 12 hours in about 2 days. It was quite dull and repetitive by the time I was finished.
There were some positives. There were events covered here that have not been given a lot of attention in other American history venues. It was very nice to see the construction of The Statue of Liberty, The Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore. I thought that the Western Migration and eventual Dust Bowl era were covered with more detail than I’d previously seen. There could have been a mention of The Grapes Of Wrath, however.
I wish that I could recommend this series to you. You don’t know how much I wanted to. The fact is, this isn’t good history, and it’s frankly not up to the standards that the History Channel has set for themselves over the years. It’s a brand that I usually find can be depended upon to both educate and entertain all at the same time. This series does neither.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. The picture quality varies quite a bit here. The high-definition aspect just doesn’t shine in a way that will make you take notice this time. The computer generated stuff might actually look better in standard definition where their low-budget quality might not stand out so much. The live-action re-enactments look fine with plenty of detail and natural looking color. But even here the sets are quite low budget, as are the costumes and props. Black levels are average. I’m sure the presentation is pretty much on par with the high-definition broadcast images.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is actually superior to the 5.1 mix. For some reason the low end in the 5.1 mix is incredibly overpowering and will only serve to shake your room. That’s fine if we’re talking tanks and trucks entering into battle. But I’m talking just the Liev Schreiber narration. It’s bad to the point of distortion. The 2.0 is fine, however, for what we’re talking about here. It’s really narration and commentary that carry the day.
Additional Footage on select episodes
Perhaps the project was merely too ambitious. Can you really go from the early settlers on the continent in Jamestown to the events of 9/11 in 12 hours? In school I’ve found that doing it in 180 hours and starting with Reconstruction is quite impossible. So perhaps the fault lies in my expectation and better-than-average grasp of the material. With this release, you really have to take it all with a rather large grain of salt. “The beauty of it…and the flaws.”